Sunday, April 21, 2013

AT ANY PRICE: Ramin Bahrani at work this time on a larger canvas--with mixed results

There's a lot to appreciate and (mostly) enjoy about AT ANY PRICE, the new film from Ramin Bahrani -- the fellow who, over nearly a decade, has given us three small films, all good to varying degrees, each of which has taken place in a constrained time frame and has centered on very few characters, one of them an immigrant to the US: the early and somewhat overpraised Man Push Cart, the better Chop Shop, and his best film so far, Goodbye Solo. Now, what a surprise it is to find him deep in America's heartland, writing and directing the story of a successful farming and seed-selling family with an increasingly tenuous hold on decency.

Like the "bad seeds" they sell -- genetically "enhanced" and then patented: think Monsanto (though the name given them here is the irony-laden "Liberty") -- this family, too, is saddled with its own not-so-hot seedling, played very well by Zac Efron (above, left), in a performance moving from light, bright and sexy to increasingly dismal and dark.

Mr. Bahrani (at left), born in North Carolina of Iranian parents, would seem to have a good perspective from which to come at his earlier work, and perhaps at this one, too. He gets good performances from his cast, particularly from the males (the females seem of somewhat lesser interest to the filmmaker, and this has been true in all his films, which are designed to be about the male and his travail). Bahrani and his cinematographer (Michael Simmonds) and cast capture the look, sound and feel -- in fact, the whole social context -- of our so-called heartland quite well, whether the scene be race-car driving, farming, funerals, town meetings or church services.

In the film's leading role Dennis Quaid, above, gives another of his good-ol-boy-with-an-edge performances that, while threatening to go over the top, never does and instead helps anchor the movie via his character's sometimes creepy combination of family-and-business-above-all.

This reflects, on a larger scale, what Quaid's main competition and more successful businessman (played well by Clancy Brown) is doing with his own family and business. It is also carried a very big step further in what that seed company is after: total power, along with total control.

Bahrani shows us the American dream, decaying from within and without. And his movie reaches for real tragedy at its finale, via an event which ought to be -- and on the surface is -- joyful and celebratory, yet could hardly be darker, given what we now know. (That's Kim Dickensabove, right, good as always, in her too-limited role as the materfamilias.)

What prevents the film from taking flight into the genuinely tragic mode to which it so clearly aspires is the occasional coincidence and then some full-out melodrama that Bahrani has allowed into his scenario (spoilers ahead, in the next sentence). A sexual tryst too conveniently overheard and seen by the film's most compelling female character (Efron's girlfriend, played smartly and genuinely by Maika Monroe, shown, left, above and below), followed by a far too obvious piece of violence, staged rather heavy-handedly (you can see the supposed corpse breathing -- or maybe that's the point: they bury a man who's not dead?). During all this, you first hope that the filmmaker will not go there, for it's too typical and simple-minded. Once he does, you can only suspend your disbelief.

Which is too bad, because there's a lot to like here. Efron, shown above and below, continues to grow; he was brave to take on a role this surprisingly negative. For his part, Bahrani proves he can work on a much larger canvas, even if, at last, the movie gets away from him.

At Any Price -- from Sony Pictures Classics and running 105 minutes -- opens this Wednesday, April 24, in Manhattan at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema and in the Los Angeles area at the Arclight Hollywood 15 and The Landmark. Click here to see currently scheduled playdates, cites and theaters.

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